This commentary was published as a guest opinion in the IOWA CITY PRESS-CITIZEN, THE GAZETTE (Cedar Rapids, IA) and THE DAILY IOWAN on April 18, 2014.
The request seemed simple: provide your school district’s policy for handling emergencies that require a school lockdown and notifying parents. Libby Collins, a University of Iowa senior working as a journalist for the non-profit Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism – IowaWatch on a news story, asked Iowa’s 30 largest school districts for that information in late February.
One-by-one, school districts responded within a few days, some with links to policies on their website, some with emails. One district superintendent sending documents expressed being offended by a formal letter and another seemingly indignant superintendent wrote that all you had to do was ask.
Most were courteous and friendly, with one school district employee adding a smiley face to her email response. Even those declining to send documents, citing an Iowa Code section that allows school officials to keep confidential information they feel could endanger safety if released, spoke in general about ways they notify parents about emergency situations at school.
No one responded the way the Iowa City Community School District did. “Per your request and prior to starting the process, I wanted to inform you that the fee for the work will more than likely be between $25.00-$50.00. I will not know the exact amount until we navigate further through the process,” the district’s chief community affairs officer, Chace Ramey, wrote in his email, getting right to the point after a pleasant greeting.
Want to know a good way to deter the public from obtaining a public document? Start by talking price, especially more than they think they should have to pay. Money matters to citizens, and many of them seeking information from a public entity see a high cost as a roadblock, especially if they are not aware of their right to inspect public documents on site without any initial fee.
Open government advocates have been making this case for years. Emphasize costs, especially on the high end, and records requests shift from how helpful a public entity is to producing public documents to how much you can afford. High costs deter. And, yes, $25 or $50 can seem high when the request seems to be routine.
The problems with this particular request went beyond money. They became a battle back and forth for too long to get an existing written policy that 28 other districts – one failed to respond to the records request – could provide, or promised to provide, quickly. It took 31 days to get three pages from the Iowa City school district.
State law requires public entities to reveal potential costs for fulfilling open records requests but it also allows for you to view records on site at no initial cost. Collins asked for a time to do that at the school district office but nothing was set up until a second person, IowaWatch staff journalist Lauren Mills, joined the effort and exchanged a series of emails and phone calls. The documents finally were obtained more than two weeks after Collins’ request to inspect in person.
Fairness requires some acknowledgments. Public entities may charge reasonable costs to produce public records. The Iowa City school district does not charge if documents can be retrieved in less than an hour but charges $25 an hour after that, as well as $25 an hour to search archived emails. Charges are prorated.
Also, district officials were gracious when explaining safety precautions taken during an emergency at a school when the reporters finally could view the policy.
District officials will tell you that warning people up front about potential costs is being transparent so that an unexpected bill is not sprung on someone knee-deep into a records search. Any deterrence would be unintended, they say.
Unintended or not, it deters. Starting the public’s process with costs that seem out of line, even prohibitive, is like leading with your chin in the battle to be more transparent to the public. Why would you do that?
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